The Two Truths in Indian Buddhism

1. Vaibhāṣika: Vasubandhu

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Between the first and second century CE, the Vaibhāṣika, a subschool of the panrealist Sarvāstivāda school, became the dominant non-Mahāyāna school in northern India. Its influence soon spread across central Asia and would eventually reach China. By the seventh century, the famous Chinese pilgrim Yijing (635–713) traveled to India to study at Nālanda University, and after a period of twenty-five years (671–695) recorded, in his Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago,22 the widespread currency of this philosophy in the kingdoms of central Asia, on the islands of Sumatra and Java in Southeast Asia, as well as in southern, western, and eastern China.

The Vaibhāṣika, like the Sautrāntika, recognize the Abhidharma as the actual words of the Buddha and classify it as one of the three piṭakas, literally three “baskets” or “scriptural collections.” The Vaibhāṣika school held its council in Pāṭaliputra around the turn of the second century, which produced a sweeping commentary called the Great Commentary (Mahāvibhāṣāśāstra, also known as Vibhāṣā), a monumental Encyclopedia of Abhidharma commentary on Kātyāyanīputra’s Engaging with the Higher Insight of the Abhidharma (Abhidharmajñānaprasthāna),23 and six supplementary treatises (Padaśāstras).24 According to the Great Commentary, the four great masters of the 26school were Ghoṣak, Buddhadeva, Bhadanta Vasumitra, and Bhadanta Dharmatrāta; they were contemporaries who produced original works supplementing the canonical texts.25

In the fourth century, Vasubandhu undertook a comprehensive survey of the Sarvāstivāda school’s thought, the results of which were a landmark compendium, the Treasury of Abhidharma, and its accompanying commentary (Abhidharmakośabhāṣya). Vasubandhu based his works on the Great Commentary, a comprehensive commentary on Kātyāyanīputra’s Engaging with the Higher Insight of the Abhidharma, which according to the tradition was initially drafted and compiled during the Emperor Kaniṣka’s council through the collaborative works of the four great contemporary master philosophers of the Sarvāstivāda: Ghoṣak, Buddhadeva, Bhadanta Vasumitra,26 and Bhadanta Dharmatrāta.27 These scholars also produced their own original works supplementing the Sarvastivādin canonical texts. Paul Demiéville observes that the authors of the Vibhāṣā were from Kaśmīra themselves. The followers of The Great Commentary came to be known as Vaibhāṣika, a term especially appropriated for the Kāśmīri. Vasubandhu’s works, drawn on the Great Commentary on which the Vaibhāṣika philosophical positions are based, offer a generally reliable and probing critique of the Vaibhāṣika views from the Sautrāntika standpoint, including the theory of the two truths.

The Vaibhāṣika ontology classifies all the objects of knowledge within five basic categories:

1)Matter (rūpa), which consists of eleven forms. These are the ten revealing forms (vijñaptirūpa)the five senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body) and five sensory objects (forms, sounds, smell, taste, and tangible objects) — and the nonrevealing form (avijñāptirūpa) that is not perceptible to the five senses.28

2)Primary minds are cognitions (citta) that range from visual consciousness to mental consciousness.29 These apprehend the generalities of objects.


3)Secondary minds (caitta). These apprehend the particularities of the objects.

4)Nonassociated composite phenomena (cittacaittaviprayuktasaṃskāra), which are neither material nor mental, because they are disjoined from the mind and yet resemble the mind. These include life force, attainment, nonattainment, absorption, production, aging, enduring, cessation, and the like, which are neither mental nor physical.30

5)Noncontingent or unconditioned phenomena (asaṃskṛta), which are not causally produced. These include space, analytical cessation (pratisaṁkhyānirodha), and nonanalytical cessation (apratisaṁkhyānirodha).31

This ontology is foundational to the Vaibhāṣika theory of the two truths. In regard to the ontology of the two truths, in the Treasury of Abhidharma, Vasubandhu defines the two truths as follows:

An entity, the cognition of which does not arise when it is destroyed and mentally divided, conventionally exists (saṃvṛtisat), like a pot and water. Ultimate existence (paramārthasad) is otherwise.32

Vasubandhu’s Commentary on the Treasury of Abhidharma (Abhidharmakośabhāṣya) explains the above definitions more fully:

Something conventionally exists if the cognition of it does not arise upon its division into parts, like a pot. There is no cognition of a pot when it is broken into pieces. And something conventionally exists if the concept of it does not arise when its properties are mentally stripped away, like water. The cognition of water does not arise when properties such as shape and the like have been excluded from it by the mind. It is on the basis of these properties that the conventional designations are formed. Thus the statement “there is a pot, 28there is water” is true through the power of convention. It is not false; it is conventional truth.33

Vasubandhu undertakes making a distinction between two truths. Conventional truth, the common-sense reality that is often called “truth of designation” (prajñāptisatya), expresses wholes as real (persons, jars, etc.); collections as real (a nation, armies, a forest, etc.); and a continuum, causation, or motion, etc., as real (a series, chain, stream, and so forth). To be sure, these entities are far removed from any real entities (dravya); nevertheless, all of these entities are conventionally real and they satisfy the truth conditions of conventional truth, even though they are not ultimately real. Conventional truth, after all, consists of reducible spatial groupings or temporal continua. Conventional reality is composite, in contrast with the ultimate reality, which is discrete.

Ultimate truth has unique particulars (svalakṣaṇa) of real entities as its object, which consist of irreducible spatial units (e.g., atoms) and irreducible temporal units (e.g., moments of consciousnesses) of the five aggregates. In this sense, according to the Vaibhāṣika that follow Vasubandhu, ultimate reality and the “reality of real entities” (dravyasatya) are synonymous terms. Bhadanta Vasumitra, one of the Vaibhāṣika school’s greatest known philosophers, held the view that ultimate reality consists of complex moments underlying each conventional designation, which are not expressible through discursive linguistic and conceptual expressions, characterizable by most general designations as being causally conditioned. Echoing this point, the Great Commentary, offering an alternative position, goes so far as to saying that there is only one theory regarding conditioned events that can be ultimately true, that “all things are empty of self.”34 I propose this is Vasubandhu’s final philosophical position, which he advances in his works such as An Extensive Commentary on the Diamond Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitāvajracchedikāsaptārthaṭīkā). The Vaibhāṣika that followVasubandhu, however, adopt the Sarvāstivāda approach. Although the progressive nature of its philosophy importantly noted that the Sautrāntrika that follow Vasubandhu critique Vaibhāṣika metaphysics.


According to the Vaibhāṣika, ultimate truth consists of irreducible spatial units (e.g., atoms) and irreducible temporal units (e.g., an instant of consciousness) of the five basic categories of objects of knowledge. Conventional truth, on the other hand, consists of reducible spatial groupings and temporal continua. Put simply, the conventional is composite, the ultimate discrete.


We turn now to examine conventional truth in greater detail first. For the Vaibhāṣika, conventional truth, composite-existence, and lack of intrinsic nature are all equivalents. A conventional truth therefore has three interrelated qualities; it is:

1)Reducible. Conventional truths are physically and logically reducible. They disintegrate when subjected to physical destruction and disappear from our minds when their parts are separated in logical analysis.

2)Derivative. Conventional truths borrow their identity from other things, including their parts and properties. They lack the intrinsic nature required for independent existence.

3)Constructed. Conventional truth is a product of mental constructions, which give composite things an appearance of singularity and give reducible things an appearance of irreducibility. Such mental constructions include conventionally real wholes (as opposed to parts), causation, and temporal continuum — which, intuition notwithstanding, are conventions, not ultimate truths.

The three qualities are interrelated, and it is from the first of the qualities — reducibility — that the other two necessarily follow. For the Vaibhāṣika, conventional truth consists of reducible spatial wholes or temporal continua. In the definition of conventional truth cited above in the Treasury of Abhidharma, Vasubandhu uses a two-step process. He first determines what it is to conventionally exist, and 30subsequently he equates conventional existence with conventional truth. They are, Vasubandhu says, mutually coextensive. Whatever is “conventionally existent” is also “conventionally true.” To conventionally exist, Vasubandhu says, is to be subject to physical destruction (a pot when it is broken into pieces) and intellectual deconstruction (water stripped of its component qualities). Destruction and deconstruction put the lie to something’s ultimate existence: the concept of “pot” cannot survive the dismemberment of its material components; the concept of “water” cannot survive the subtraction of its component qualities.

In his Commentary on the Treasury of Abhidharma: Following the Defining Characteristics (Abhidharmakośaṭīkālakṣaṇānusāriṇī), the philosopher Pūrṇavardhana (date unknown) argues that Vasubandhu’s examples of conventional truths, pot and water, are particularly significant.35 First, they explain the distinct ways in which conventional truth may be reduced. A pot, easily destroyed, demonstrates physical reduction, whereas water, not easily physically separated from its properties, demonstrates conceptual reduction. Second, this distinction signals a necessary division of conventional truth into two subcategories: (1) shapes, conventions whose existence depends upon other conventions, and (2) composites, conventions whose existence depends on other entities.The pot represents shapes: conventional truths that exist in dependence on other conventional truths, by which they may be readily physically divided. A shape is simply the convention applied to a collection of physical components, an amalgam of more basic shapes. A “pot” is simply the convention applied to the collection of “mud” and “water,” themselves simply conventions applied to certain configurations of atomic particles.

Water represents composites: conventional truths that exist in dependence on abstract properties such as form and color.36 Since they are not readily physically divided, composites are subject only to conceptual reduction: the separation of water from its form, taste, and smell may be physically confounding and deceptive but it is analytically simple — logically singular and irreducible.

A further important point, which Dignāga notes in his Commentary on the Treasury of Abhidharma: The Lamp Illuminating the Central 31Issues (Abhidharmakośavṛttimarmapradīpa), is that although shapes demonstrate the process of physical reduction, such as a pot being easily broken into pieces, they too are subject to conceptual reduction. To treat the pot as a whole rather than its assorted subcomponents is a conceptual leap, and, of course, one of those subcomponents is water — Vasubandhu’s archetypal composite, which may be effectively reduced only by analysis.37

Still, pots and water are not nonexistent. They are conventionally real things, which means they exist through the force of conventional designations and conceptual imputations. Here we see that the second and third qualities — to be derivative and constructed — flow from the first quality, the quality of reducibility. As composite and reducible as “pot” and “water” may be, we nevertheless think of and refer to them in solid, singular terms. We refer to a single “pot,” not to each of its manifold atomic components. We refer simply to “water,” not to each of its manifold abstract properties. The identities to which these names refer do not intrinsically exist. They are instead derived from their component parts and properties. This is the second quality of conventional truths, to be derivative. Their identity derives from myriad other things, rather than the single intrinsic nature (svabhāva) required for independent existence.

How is it that we affix qualities to things that are anything but singular conceptual labels? We do so, the Vaibhāṣika argue, with the powerful but imprecise adhesive of convention. This is the third quality of conventional truths, to be constructed. Conventional truths are not themselves irreducible or singular, but are the products of mental constructions, conventions that lend an appearance to phenomena. Solid concepts like “pot” and “water,” applied to things so vulnerable to physical and analytical deconstruction, are the work of a mind that constructs a unified conceptual framework from disparate parts.

Thus we see the interrelationship between the three qualities: conventional truths are reducible, liable to be deconstructed, because they are constructed in the first place — constructed by the mind from manifold derivative components.


In our discussion of conventional truth so far we have focused on the examples of pots and water. Though these examples may effectively demonstrate the varying ways in which analysis exposes phenomena as merely conventional, soteriologically speaking, understanding the nature of pots and water is not the primary target. As was the case in the previous discussion, and will be the case in each subsequent one, the assumption that Buddhist philosophy is primarily concerned with rejecting is that which makes the greatest contribution to our ongoing dissatisfaction: the assumption of a solid and enduring “self,” which is true for all stripes of Buddhism — Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna.

As for the schools we will examine, the Vaibhāṣika also regards the “self” as a conventional truth — a convenient, but ultimately inaccurate, name applied to an assemblage of the aggregates. The only “self” the Vaibhāṣika refrain from negating is that which refers to, as Vasubandhu tells us, “the aggregates, conditioned by defilement and action, of perpetuating themselves by means of the series of intermediate existence, like a lamp.”38 And such a self is a mere convention. His own commentary expands on this:

We do not deny a self (ātman) that exists through designation, a self that is only a name given to the aggregates (skandhas). But far from us is the thought that the aggregates pass into another world! They are momentary and incapable of transmigrating.39

Having approached the definition of conventional truth positively — that is, what conventional truth is — it is equally instructive to approach it negatively — that is, to determine what conventional truth is not. We turn now to ultimate truth.


We have seen that what is conventionally true exists under the power of linguistic and conceptual conventions. By implication, what is ultimately true is something whose existence does not depend at all on 33the power of convention. For the Vaibhāṣika, such a thing is “foundationally existent” (dravyasat).40 We have also seen that to apply singular concepts to “compositely existent” things (avayavidravya) requires the intervening glue of convention. For foundationally existent things, though, that glue is totally unnecessary, since such things are as simple and irreducible as the concepts that refer to them. In the case of something foundationally existent, there always remains something irreducible to which the concept of the thing applies. Foundationally existent things are ultimately true since they are true irrespective of convention. I will address this point at greater length later.

The Vaibhāṣika treat as conventional those things that possess the three intertwined qualities of reducibility, derivation, and construction. Ultimate truths are therefore their opposite — that is, they are:

1)Irreducible. Ultimate truths are immune to physical destruction and resist the logical analysis that would otherwise undermine their identity by separating them from their parts.

2)Independent. Ultimate truths do not borrow their nature from elsewhere, including from their parts. They exist simply by virtue of their intrinsic nature (svabhāva).

3)Unconstructed. Ultimate truths are not the product of mental constructions. Their intrinsic nature exists independently of all things, including the conceptual mind.

For the Vaibhāṣika, ultimate truths fall into two categories: the uncompounded ultimate (asaṃskṛta) and the compounded ultimate (saṃskṛta).

The uncompounded ultimate

The uncompounded ultimate consists of space (akāśa) and nirvāṇa, the latter of which is a complete freedom from afflictive states of existence and further subdivided into analytical cessation or freedom (pratisaṃkhyānirodha) and nonanalytical cessation or freedom (apratisaṃkhyānirodha). Together, these three are referred to as the 34“uncompounded trio,” a grouping that will be further discussed in regard to other schools in subsequent chapters.

The uncompounded ulitmate is called “uncompounded” on the grounds that such phenomena are immune to reduction. They resist physical reduction because they are nonspatial concepts devoid of the slightest physical referent. Space is a mere absence of entity. Analytical and nonanalytical cessations are the two forms of nirvāṇa, which is itself the mere absence of (or freedom from) suffering.41

These concepts are not physical and so may not be physically dismantled. The Vaibhāṣika treat them as immune to logical reduction too, because in their ontological estimation, they are not subjected to causal conditioning. Since anything composite or compounded is vulnerable to physical deconstruction (such as pots) or analytical deconstruction (such as water), anything that resists such deconstruction does so because it is primary and uncompounded. Thus, the Vaibhāṣika treats the uncompounded trio (space and the two forms of cessation) as ultimately real, as foundational entities.

The compounded ultimate

For the Vaibhāṣika, the compounded ultimate consists of the five aggregates: the material aggregate (rūpa), feeling aggregate (vedanā), perception aggregate (saṁjñā), dispositional aggregate (saṃskāra), and consciousness aggregate (vijñāna). Vasubandhu writes:

Ultimate truth constitutes ultimate existence, e.g., material form, the concept of which survives its destruction and the mental exclusion of other properties. Even when form [aggregate] is divided up into atoms, and even when the mind takes away from it properties such as taste and the like, there is still the concept of the intrinsic nature (svabhāva) of the form. Feeling [and the other aggregates] must be seen in the same way. Because this exists ultimately, it is known as ultimate truth.42


These aggregates are treated as compounded phenomena because although they are causally produced, they can only be conceived individually. Were it possible to conceive of the aggregates as mere collections and psychophysical continua, they could not be ultimately real. But, the Vaibhāṣika argue, such a conception is beyond the realm of cognitive possibility. The aggregates are objective and indissoluble domains of cognition and so can only be conceived of as such. One’s ideas of the aggregates are natural, singular, and indestructible, and so the aggregates can be nothing other than ultimately real. Ideas — which are nonphysical by nature — may not be physically dismantled, and ideas this primary to our perception of self and phenomena may not be dismantled by analysis. Pūrṇavardhana, in glossing the previous passage by Vasubandhu, explains:

Collectively, feeling, dispositions, consciousness, etc. should be treated as conventionally real. Nevertheless, considered in isolation, they should be treated only as foundational existents (dravyas). But why so? Feeling and the other aggregates are realities on the ground for which, despite attempts to mentally exclude them, the idea of feeling and the other aggregates arises intrinsically.43

In other words, though the aggregates are not exempt from reduction, the idea of each aggregate is: the idea of perception, the idea of disposition, the idea that consciousness persists. None of these, the Vaibhāṣika argue, may be excluded logically or physically and so are ultimately real.


In this chapter we have seen that the Vaibhāṣika, or Sarvāstivāda, school excludes the second and third turnings of the wheel and includes the Abhidharma Piṭaka, which is the basis for much of its original commentary and philosophical interpretation.


We have seen that for the Vaibhāṣika, a conventional truth is that which exists under the power of conceptual construction. It is constructed from more basic physical, temporal, and conceptual entities, and it can be physically or analytically deconstructed, or reduced, back into the same. A conventional truth, in other words, is that which possesses three qualities: it is reducible, derivative, and constructed. Physical deconstruction is the domain of shapes and analytical deconstruction the domain of composites, and these two forms of deconstruction overlap — that which is vulnerable to physical deconstruction may also be further analytically deconstructed. The most insidious conventional truth, which most urgently requires deconstruction, is, as it will be discussed in the subsequent chapters on other schools of philosophy, the “self.”

The Vaibhāṣika concept of the ultimate truth is, we saw, essentially the inverse of its position on conventional truth. Where conventional truths are reducible, derivative, and constructed, ultimate truths are irreducible, independent, and unconstructed. Vaibhāṣika subclassifies ultimate truths according to whether they are subject to causality, as either uncompounded (not subject to causality) or compounded (subject to causality). In the former category fall the “uncompounded trio” (space, analytical cessation, and nonanalytical cessation), and in the latter the five aggregates, which, although they are causal continua (and so temporally reducible), can only be conceived of independently and irreducibly — they are objective and indissoluble domains of cognition. It is the mind that is tasked with exposing phenomena as reducible, derivative, and constructed, and so far as the aggregates are concerned, it is constitutionally incapable of it. It is in the final regard — the classification of ultimate truths according to their susceptibility to causality, and maintaining the ultimacy of the aggregates by appealing to epistemology, to the limits of cognitive possibility — that the Vaibhāṣika most distinguish themselves from the Sautrāntika with whose position on the two truths they are otherwise in substantial agreement.

The Vaibhāṣika, as represented in Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, may be described as robustly panrealist. Vasubandhu argues that ultimate reality consists of spatial svabhāvas — intrinsically 37real, irreducible spatial particles (i.e., atoms) — and temporal svabhāvas — irreducible temporal units (i.e., instants of consciousness). Vaibhāṣika’s approach to ultimate truth can be described as a form of correspondence theory of truth, meaning that ultimate truth consists in a relation to, or correspondence with, svabhāvas as the ultimate reality. That is to say, ultimate truth is a relational property involving a characteristic correspondence or congruence relation to ultimately real svabhāvas, in which svabhāvas play the role of genuine truthmakers and ultimately true statements play the role of genuine truthbearers.44 As the contemporary scholar Fraser MacBride has remarked, “The notion truthmaker, like that of a clapping hand, cannot ultimately be understood in isolation from the notion of what it makes true, the other hand with which it claps, a truthbearer.”45 Thus the statement “entities with intrinsic nature (svabhāva) are ultimately real” is an ultimately true statement if it accurately represents the way that ultimately real entities may then be said to be ultimately true.46 “It’s painful” is an ultimately true statement since it denotes the intrinsic nature of pain is the intrinsic characteristic of any pain; whatever the pain results from, svabhāva makes it be the sort of pain it is. Thus, pain’s svabhāva can be an ultimately real truthmaker.

Conventional reality, on the other hand, lacks svabhāva and consists of reducible spatial wholes (such as a person, self, table, etc.) or temporal continua (such as a stream of consciousness, etc.). Put simply, conventional reality is composite, consisting of wholes and continua, whereas ultimate reality is a discrete moment. It is clear the Vaibhāṣika do not assert a robust realist form of correspondence theory insofar as the treatment of conventional truth goes. Since conventionally true statements denote collections, wholes, and continua such as a person, self, car, and table, etc. — all of which are conventionally real, but only conceptually constructed fictions — they are ultimately unreal and possess only parabhāvas — meaning extrinsic natures or contingent characteristics, which are borrowed property from elsewhere (as opposed to being an intrinsic nature of conventionally real entities).

Representing the Vaibhāṣika school, Vasubandhu argues that linguistic truth expresses and applies strictly to conventional reality. He main38tains that conventional truth, composite existence (avayavidravya), and the lack of intrinsic nature (niḥsvabhāva) are more or less equivalents. The Vaibhāṣika maintain that linguistic truth applies to types of things that are reducible, derived, and constructed. Concepts that disintegrate when subjected to physical destruction and disappear from our minds when their parts are separated in logical analysis are thus reducible physically and logically. Concepts that borrow their identity from other things, including their parts and properties that lack the intrinsic nature required for independent existence, are derived properties. Concepts that are products of mental constructions are aggregations of appearance of inherence — such as wholes, causation, and temporal continuums — and are thus constructed. As such, these conventionally real entities cannot play the role of genuine truthmakers. In this sense, conventional truth, though useful pragmatically, only represents conceptual fictions, entities whose nature is purely extrinsic, and therefore cannot play the role of genuine truthbearer in the sense of a robust realist correspondence theory of truth.47 Yet there is a sense that the Vaibhāṣika employ a weaker notion of correspondence theory for conventional truth. After all there is no denying that conventional truth genuinely leads to success in pragmatic purposes, so in this sense, conventional truth for the Ābhidharmika appears to follow the pragmatic theory of truth.

As we turn to the subschools of the Sautrāntika, we can immediately notice their philosophical positions are formed in relation to the Vaibhāṣika. It is to the Sautrāntika we now turn.

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